August 14, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
“Poor, foster kid, Black, immigrant, cancer patient, small, Muslim….”
This is the opening of a commercial that has been running during the Olympics which ends with Serena Williams staring into the camera and defiantly stating, “The only label that matters is Olympian,” followed by the tagline, “Mini [Cooper] salutes US Olympians who defy labels.”
In commentary, advertising, and newspaper coverage, the US Olympic team is being celebrated as representative of the diversity of the United States and as an example of the kind of meritocracy our nation promotes where skill is all that matters and skin color, ethnic background, class, and even this year sexuality become simply footnotes. The five member US women’s gymnastic team, for example, has two women who are African American, one who is Latino, and two who are white (one of whom is Jewish) but when they won the Gold medal and stood on the podium with the National Anthem playing, most of the country saw only Americans and were proud of them. The Olympics is popular not only because it’s amazing to watch the skill of the athletes but because for two weeks it allows us to put aside all of our differences and concentrate instead on our common bond as Americans.
The US Olympic team is, in a sense, the way we want to see ourselves as a people and every four years (or every two years if you count the Winter Olympics) we can immerse ourselves in that collective dream and imagine that it is not a dream but a reality. All we need to do, however, is read the headlines before and after the Olympic news to know that our “unity in diversity” is far from a reality. This summer in particular the contrast between the goodwill of the Olympic games and the actual state of our country is sobering, to say the least. Even while NBC was extolling the diversity of the US Gymnastics team, some people back home were tweeting things like, “Obama changed the girls Olympic team to non-white…” “White girls were victims of Affirmative Action.” The tweeters didn’t want to admit that women of color had beaten out their white competitors simply on the basis of talent. 1
And the American Muslim woman, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the fencing team and the first person ever to compete in a hijab, told a reporter that she feels unsafe in her own country.
“I had someone follow me home from practice and try to report me to police,” she told the reporter, and this was in NY City. Her hijab marked her as a Muslim and so the man following her assumed she was a terrorist. And she has reason to be afraid because just yesterday afternoon, an imam and his assistant were shot and killed in NY, a few blocks away from their mosque, possibly the victims of a hate crime.
The Olympic dream of being judged solely on the basis of your skills and not your race, religion, or sexuality is a dream still unrealized for many in America, and in the past year, we have had cause to wonder whether that dream is moving farther out of reach instead of closer. Our country has endured the horrific slaying of LGBTQ people in the Orlando night club, the murder of African-Americans gathered for Bible Study in their church, the anti-Muslim rhetoric of politicians. It has been rocked by the shootings of African-American men by police, and the shootings of police by angry vigilantes. And as the presidential election draws nearer, the invective has gotten crazier until we are battered into numbness by the relentless tone of anger and division. The contrast between what we want to believe about ourselves as a country and what we are seeing roll out of our screens every day is devastatingly despairing.
So what are we to do? One columnist recommended that the way we should deal with our depression at the state of our country is to turn off the news and go to the beach, but while that may give us a break for a few days, it’s not a long term solution. I know — I tried it — but things are still bad when you get back from the beach and as much as we might want to bury our heads in the sand, as Christians, we are called to care about these things. We are called to bear the unbearable despair as we doggedly pursue justice for the people and try to create a society grounded in Christ’s all inclusive compassion. In a way, that Olympic dream is a description of the Christian dream because what is God’s kingdom if it is not a place where labels are meaningless and categories are stripped of their power, where the only label that matters is the one that says, “Child of God?” So as Christians, we are called to respond to the voices of hatred and division with a word that will bring instead freedom for the oppressed, healing for the hurting, and a recognition that every person is valuable in God’s eyes, even our enemies. When we feel despair at the sorrow and the meanness of the world, and we say, “What can I do to change this? What can I, one person here in this tiny piece of western NY, do to combat the intolerance and cruelty which overwhelms our nation and robs us of the dream?” as Christians, we find the answer in Christ’s call to us. Christ charged each of us to live in the fullness of love — love of God, love of our friends, love for our neighbors, love for our community, love of ourselves, and love even for our enemies — and Christ believed that when we live out the fulness of such love we will have the power to change society.
When we meet words of judgment with words of forgiveness and mercy, we can change hearts, Christ said.
When we meet words of bigotry and prejudice with words of acceptance and understanding, we can change society.
When we meet words of hatred with words of love, we can change the balance of the powers of our world. This is Christ’s call to to us; this is Christ’s promise. What you can do to battle the powers of hatred is to live a life of complete love.
It’s about now that many of you are probably saying in the back of your mind, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know we’re supposed to be loving and all of that but come on, this is all just ‘Christian-speak.’ You’re the minister — that’s what you’re supposed to say — but if we are going to really combat bigotry and bring about justice, we need something that has some teeth to it.”
Maybe you wouldn’t say it out loud because, you know, you’re in church and it’s not polite to question Jesus when you’re in his house, but most of us have to admit that when we leave this sanctuary and get back out there in the “real” world, we have some doubts about the effectiveness of love as a means to bring about real social change. With the kind of stuff that we are seeing going on right now, there’s this other voice in our heads telling us that what we really need is to knock some heads together and give some of those idiots a taste of their own medicine!
And to add to our doubts is the indisputable fact that love has a dismal short term track record. If you stand up to the internet troll who is spewing invective by replying with words of love, you are probably going to be drowned in a torrent of disgusting insults. When you stand up to your enemy who is taunting you and wielding a club, and insist on showing them love, you may very well get clobbered over the head. When you stand up to the powers of intolerance with words of love, you may end up in prison like Nelson Mandela, or shot like Martin Luther King, Jr., or crucified like Jesus. Love has a horrid short term track record which is why a lot of social movements that start out peaceably enough, often turn violent because in the short term, love just doesn’t seem to be a strong enough weapon to win the battle, and so people give up on it.
But we are not in this for the short term; we are in it for the long haul. We are Kingdom people working for God who is now and who is still to come, the alpha — the beginning of all things — and the omega — the end of all things, who grows mighty bushes from the tiniest of seeds, the God who opened the tomb where the crucified Christ lay and raised him to inaugurate a new age. We are in this for the long haul because we serve a God not just of today but of tomorrow, world without end. Amen.
Of course, that voice in your head is still protesting, “That’s just more Christian-speak,” flowery religious words that have no power in the real world. In fact, however, the proposition that love is more powerful than hate over the long haul has been substantiated by real world research. Brian Martin, a professor at the University of Wollongong, Australia, in a paper called, “Social Change: conventional politics, violence, and nonviolence,” argues that “There is not a single unambiguous case where violence …. has been a key factor in bringing about beneficial change within representative systems.” 2 Violence, he says, historically just replaces one ruling power with another ruling power and moreover, trying to bring about social change through force, even when done for the best intentions, turns the undecided against you. Social change always begins with a small group in society challenging the power of an equally small group in charge of making the rules, and so change will come through winning the hearts of that large undecided middle: the fence sitters, the doubtful, and the dubious. When we meet hatred with love and persist in love no matter how bad things get, the undecided will begin to respect what we are doing, listen to what we are saying, and eventually find in themselves the strength to love too. Then, the balance will shift toward change.
There is no question that love has a dismal short term track record, but there is also no question that its long term track record is exemplary. Nelson Mandela, who spent most of his life in prison, helped defeat apartheid and was elected President of South Africa, and at his inauguration, he continued to insist on the power of love by inviting his prison guards to sit in the seats of honor. The Civil Rights Movement led to desegregation. And of course, the crucifixion gave way to the resurrection and the birth of the church.
Psalm 37:8 says, “Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes—it only makes things worse. Before long the crooks will be bankrupt; God-investors will soon own the store.”
Trust Christ’s call to love and have patience. We are in this for the long haul.
In Georgia, an India-born Muslim named Malik Waliyani runs a neighborhood gas station and convenience store and on July 21st, he arrived at the store to discover that it had been burglarized and damaged. He was devastated. His insurance was not going to cover all of the costs and he wasn’t sure how he could keep it going. A member of the nearby Smoke Rise Baptist Church heard about his difficulties and suggested that the congregation help Waliyani, so one Sunday, after worship, dozens of members of the church drove to the gas station where they filled up their tanks, and bought candy and food items from the little store. Many refused to accept change for their purchases. One man drove his car around until the gas tank was empty, and then came back and refilled his tank.
The pastor, Chris George, explained, “Our faith inspires us to build bridges, not to label people as us and them, but to recognize that we’re all part of the same family. Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace others with love.” 3
Waliyani said that he was amazed to be so accepted by his neighbors. “They stood by me in my difficult time, and it gives me hope to rise again.” 4
When we doubt the power of love to change hearts and minds and society itself, we doubt the word of God and the power of God to bring about resurrection out of death even if it takes longer than three days. We, as Christians, must be committed not only to the word of love that Christ expects from us but we must also be patient and trust in God’s ability to ensure that our love bears fruit even if we don’t know how or when the harvest will come. Social change is won by those who are willing to accept short term loss knowing that in the long haul, the resurrection awaits.
On the home screen of my computer, I have a file labeled, “Read when discouraged,” and the file contains a piece by the Reverend John Killinger. I have read this piece to you before but just as I have read it many many times, I think it is worth your hearing again. In fact, I suggest that you take these words and hang them on your refrigerator, put them on your phone, write them on your hand, anywhere you can find that will ensure they burrow down into your heart so that you can remember them when the world’s cruelty seems to be winning the battle.
In the days of the great western cattle rancher, Killinger write, “A little burro sometimes would be harnessed to a wild steed. Bucking and raging, convulsing like drunken sailors, the two would be turned loose like Laurel and Hardy to proceed out onto the desert range. They could be seen disappearing over the horizon, the great steed dragging that little burro along and throwing him about like a bag of cream puffs. They might be gone for days, but eventually they would come back. The little burro would be seen first, trotting back across the horizon, leading the submissive steed in tow. Somewhere out there on the rim of the world, that steed would become exhausted from trying to get rid of the burro, and in that moment, the burro would take mastery and become the leader.
“And that,” Killinger writes, “is the way it is with [God’s] kingdom and its heroes, isn’t it? The battle is to the determined, not to the outraged; to the committed, not to those who are merely dramatic.” 5
5. I no longer have the original source for this quote.